ST. PETERSBURG — Three of the four City Council districts up for election this year border or include parts of Midtown, an area blighted by high levels of poverty, crime and unemployment.
It was little wonder, then, that jobs, education and policing were the main talking points at a debate Wednesday where candidates outlined their ideas for tackling the city’s thorniest issues.
Solutions offered at the debate included ideas such as converting daycare facilities in Midtown into Pre-K education centers to better prepare kids for school. Candidates also talked about renovating housing, providing more vocational training and developing the city’s medical and marine-science corridors and the Dome industrial area to attract more businesses to St. Petersburg, although there were few concrete ideas on how that would be done.
The discussion came at a sparsely attended debate at City Hall on Wednesday evening hosted by the University of South Florida - St. Petersburg. Eight candidates are running for four seats in the Nov. 5 general election.
The low level of interest might reflect that polls indicate none of the races are close. Incumbents Jim Kennedy in District 2 and Karl Nurse in District 4 are both sitting on big leads over challengers Lorraine Margeson and Sharon Russ respectively, according to a poll conducted by StPetePolls. District 4 candidate Darden Rice and political newcomer Amy Foster in District 8 also enjoy big leads over respective opponents Carolyn Fries and Steve Galvin.
Russ, who lives in South St. Petersburg, said the city pays too much attention to a few black community leaders and that the city has wasted money on redevelopment programs that have failed. She said she would reach out to discover the community’s real priorities.
“Our elementary schools are drastically failing,” she said. “We’ve invested a lot of money in programs and those programs have not worked.”
Several candidates also said the county’s mass-transit initiative would help reduce poverty. If approved by voters in 2014, the network of light-rail and substantially expanded bus service would enable Midtown residents who cannot afford a car be able to go farther afield for jobs while also attracting development, they said.
“This will be helpful to Midtown and all of our city,” Kennedy said.
As throughout the campaign, there were also calls for more community policing, even though Police Chief Harmon has favored more officers being deployed in specialized units in crime hotspots.
Foster, whose district includes 34th Street, where low-cost motels have attracted drug dealing and prostitution, said both approaches should be combined.
“It’s something our citizens want very much,” she said.
Her opponent, Galvin, said he would like to see police operations less centralized so residents feel the police are part of their community.
The strongest jab of the evening came in District 2, where Margeson slammed Kennedy for ignoring petitions against the Lens pier signed by 40,000 residents and activists from the People’s Budget Review, who called for more funding in the city budget for jobs and neighborhoods.
“Do you want a council members who listens to other people or do you want my-way-or-the-highway Kennedy?” she said.
Kennedy pointed to his experience on the city’s budget committee and his endorsements from past and current mayor as proof of his track record.